Album Review: Steely Dan - Gaucho

Speaking about Steely Dan’s sixth album Aja, guitarist Dean Parks said of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, “perfection is not what they’re after, they’re after something that you wanna listen to.” No other quote encapsulates the music of Steely Dan better. Indeed on Aja, as evidenced by its sales, they really did find something you wanna listen to and arguably, found perfection. It is what Parks said next that hits true poignancy in regards to Aja’s follow up: “… we would go past the perfection point until it became natural.” 1980’s Gaucho is evidence of what a Steely Dan album sounds like when it stops just before perfection- the sound of a band desperately striving for flawlessness but ending up with a finished product on the wrong side of their goal. 

Aptly, Gaucho is indeed Steely Dan’s least “natural” record. Pained over for three years, Becker and Fagen’s seventh album glistens with pristine production and glides along on sterile jazz grooves; the bitter fruit of a tumultuous recording experience. However, the sheen of the album’s music and the grime of its recording is the very thing that makes it so superb. 

After Aja solidified their bid for a place in the Jazz canon that began with their second album Countdown to Ecstasy and was bolstered with each subsequent release, expectations were at fever pitch. As in fact were the lives of the bandmates. Ostensibly a vehicle for vocalist and keyboard player, Donald Fagen and guitarist Walter Becker, post-Pretzel Logic Steely Dan comprised of them and a rotating ensemble of studio players. Nothing but the best was expected by Becker and Fagen: musicians made multiple takes of the same section, were replaced if not good enough and soloed until Fagen and Becker found one that matched the vision in their heads. As dual lyricists also, the music was their vision, their love child and an embodiment of the power of a collective vision shared by two people. It’s this thirst for perfectionism that kick started the end for Steely Dan. 

Principally, their first problem at the hands of this thirst came with the invention of Wendel. Around 1978, Fagen and Becker pondered the benefits of a machine that would allow full control over drum tracks, the ability to move the snare and kick drum around independently. Engineer Roger Nichols took six weeks, $150,000 and came back with a machine that could do just that – Wendel. There ensued various recording difficulties that went with the temperamental machine. 

Gaucho is a suite of seven songs about the highest in society plagued by the most disturbing obsessions. Through the making of Gaucho, Fagen and Becker had become these characters.

– Kieran Baddeley

Personal problems further facilitated the album’s fraught production. Becker’s drug use hit its apex around this time. Thus the duo’s perfectionism became more an endurance test than a recording experience. Becker was also hit by a car rendering a large chunk of time with the album being recorded across a telephone. Most tragically however, Becker’s then girlfriend, Karen Roberta Stanley died of a drug overdose at his home in early 1980. Gaucho’s creation is one of small setbacks shadowed by overwhelming tragedy. With this in mind, the craving for perfection is one of almost cruel irony. 

However perverse it may be, it’s this that makes Gaucho a masterpiece. By coating each of the tracks in an impenetrable façade of laid back jazz grooves, the album’s inception serves as a sour counterpoint to the sickly-sweet music. It’s also this that makes Gaucho one the most meta albums in history. Throughout their albums, Fagen and Becker never shied away from dark lyrical preoccupations and were rarely ever autobiographical. Gaucho is a suite of seven songs about the highest in society plagued by the most disturbing obsessions. Through the making of Gaucho, Fagen and Becker had become these characters. They became the seedy characters of their own tales. It’s this that elevates Gaucho to new heights.  

That’s not to say their lyrics became even remotely less eclectic, however the gist of most songs can definitely be found. On Hey Nineteen, Fagen becomes an older gentleman leeching off the song’s titular girl and age, crooning “so fine, so young” in his unmistakable voice. It’s unsettling but the nerve of the song writing is utterly spellbinding. The album’s centrepiece is perhaps indicative of the whole album. Glamour Profession sashays across seven and a half minutes of interlocking guitar and muted synth melodies, changing little over the course of the song. Instead, a mood is established and is hammered again and again until the futility in it begins to arise. “Living hard will takes its toll” state the backing singers, a line that no doubt resonates to all, most of all to Becker himself. 

The title track may well be my favourite Steely Dan song and is certainly the album’s highlight. While the music is a near copy of Keith Jarrett’s Long as You Know You’re Living Yours, the melody is all original. Critics of Gaucho– of which there are many, often cite its lack of emotional resonance, however I defy anyone not be moved when Fagen, pained yet in full control, cries “what do you think I’m yelling for?” The melody is completely bewitching and even when the chorus ascends into semi-fantastical imagery and Becker’s guitar reaches for the heavens, it’s Fagen’s cynicism to the Lord that keeps the song grounded. 

Babylon Sisters opens the album beautifully with winsome imagery of “driving west on sunset to the sea” but is undercut in the first verse with the narrator’s dubious promise that “this is no one night stand, it’s a real occasion.” With the horns drawing themselves out into infrequent bursts, it’s hard to disguise any innuendos and like Hey Nineteen, is the sound of lyricists completely comfortable in their style. 

‘Gauchos’ are considered irrefutably talented horsemen with bravery to match. On My Rival, the album’s title becomes an ironic complement to one of Steely Dan’s funniest songs. The song details an over-obsessive lover on the hunt for any wrongdoings on their partner’s part. As with most of their unreliable narrators, his macho stance and bravery is less believable than his claim of detectives who “filmed the whole charade.” It’s a welcome respite before the album ends with the gorgeously despondent Third World Man.

The characters on Gaucho are hipsters who are devoid of the cool that once made up their personalities.

– Kieran Baddeley

While Gaucho is unlikely to break your heart, the claim it is devoid of emotion is only garnered from fleeting listens. Deeper understanding reveals their usual humour and wit at home with melancholy and irrefutable loneliness. The sound of seven narrators on seven songs, coming to terms with their place in the universe. Deacon Blues on Aja  is representative of the hipsters Fagen and Becker wanted to be. Of course, they became them, but the characters on Gaucho are hipsters who are devoid of the cool that once made up their personalities. With age comes an absence of this, leaving just a husk.

Steely Dan would break up shortly after Gaucho, with nothing more to give. Fagen would go on to record an album of effortless skill and aplomb with his 1982 magnum opus, The Nightfly and Becker would go on to produce China Crisis’ best album. No longer the precocious purveyors of jazz-pop of the 70s, the 80s left no place for the dinosaur that was Steely Dan. While the albums push and pull of 50’s jazz underpinnings and chintzy synthesiser melodies certainly provided novelty, against such major leaps as Talking Heads Remain in LightGaucho was as much of a dinosaur as its recording vehicle. But in its own way, it’s uniqueness makes it just as good as any other album of the time. The album was a true send off to the drug filled excess of the 70s- ending up the most expensive album ever made at the time- and it was also the perfect send off to Steely Dan.           

Immaculate production courtesy of Gary Katz, immaculate guitar playing by Becker, immaculate keyboard playing by Fagen and immaculate studio musicianship (Bernard Purdie’s complements to Wendel in particular) only led to less-than-immaculate reviews. At the time, it split critics and fans and it continues to do so today. However given time, the album truly becomes a part of your life, a seedy affair with now-uncool jazz-pop that is all the more exhilarating for its immaculateness.   

Gaucho is the sound of Aja having been thrown in the ocean. Three years later it returns to the beach, a smooth and seamless pebble that, while beautiful, is evidence of just how powerful the ocean can be. Gaucho is proof that Fagen and especially Becker know just how rough those waves can feel. The ‘Dan may have fallen on the wrong side of perfection on Gaucho but when an album is this close, it hardly matters.